Planning your first trip to Russia
Spring has sprung, and summer is on the way. Soon Russian will be warm and sunny. Many tourists and travelers will be thinking about possibly visiting Russia for the first time. Follow our new Russian travel advice guide and you won’t go wrong.
Perhaps you grew up in the 1980s and remember the cold war, big missiles, Rocky 4 and that sort of thing? Perhaps you are a Guardian reader or respect the views of Mitt Romney? Well, listen up, the cold war is well and truly over and Russia is just ripe for the adventurous traveller to explore.
Visiting Russia is a little different to most holiday destinations. Forget about the joys of sitting on the beach or by the hotel pool in Spain or Turkey, sipping a cool glass of lager and watching the condensation drip down the glass as you feel the suns warm rays lapping your body.
Russia can often be rather difficult, dusty, dirty and dangerous, even on a good day. That’s a harsh combination of adjectives and an even harsher country.
After a scary flight with lots of turbulence you finally land at good old Sheremetevo or Domodedovo. Your fellow travellers will clap wildy to thank the pilot for the safe landing. Don’t worry, it’s just a Russian tradition, although it’s been dying out lately, forgive the pun! If you are travelling around inside Russia by plane, then try to choose a carrier that flies western planes, although even this doesn’t guarantee your safety. Russian built planes can be a little scary to say the least.
Once you survive the interrogation from the unsmiling but often beautiful ultra miniskirted border guard women you are free to try to find your baggage and then venture out into the arrivals hall to do battle with black leather jacket wearing gold-toothed taxi drivers who will scream “taxi,taxi,taxi” until you either shout at them or walk away.
What you need to do.
1 Get fit.
There are few easy days in Russia. Every day will be either boiling hot, dusty and humid or subarctic freezing cold.
The weather is seldom temperate. There will be no smiling tour company rep to guide you to your transfer coach and help out with your problems.
You will be carrying your bags yourself, up and down hundreds of stairs, onto trains, metro cars, trolleybuses, trams and taxis.
After a few hours of transversing Moscows transit systems you will feel as if you have run a marathon or joined the SAS. Comrade 1(me) usually returns from Russia rather fitter and lighter than before.
The best option for most of your problems will be a nice Moscow or St Petes girlfriend to help you.
When you finally arrive at your Russian girlfriends flat on the 15th floor of some remote apartment block there is a very good chance that the elevator will be out of order and you will have to yomp up the unlit piss stained stairs in complete darkness, taking care to avoid the empty beer bottles, discarded syringes and trash that threaten to trip you up. Sovietcity’s top tip – Take a small torch(flashlight) with you everywhere. Don’t worry about the gangs of youths on the stairway drinking and smoking, they aren’t British so won’t stab you or scream abuse. They are just enjoying themselves and will rarely bother you.
You need to get fit. Perhaps you work in an office, drive everywhere and don’t walk much at home ? Well, its time to break out your sports kit and get your body moving.
Train, walk, exercise, go to the gym, ride a bike, swim, anything to increase your strength and endurance. You need to get fit to survive Russia.
2. Get rich.
Forget about packing tons of crap that you will never use or wear, just take more cash.
In Russia cash is king. Don’t bother with travellers cheques as nobody accepts them and don’t believe the old stories about Russians preferring US dollars to roubles. Due to exchange rate fluctuations and a weakening Western world, the dollar has fallen out of favour. Wave your fist full of dollars in the air and the locals will just laugh at you. Even when prices are quoted in dollars the locals still expect payment in roubles.
You can use your MasterCard or Visa credit/debit cards to get cash out of most Russian ATM’s. There are some small fees, but in general you will get a better rate of exchange from your own bank rather than changing your own currency into roubles at a money exchange.
Russia can be expensive, especially for those who don’t speak any Russian at all. You can live cheaply in any city if you live like a local, rent a small cheap flat, cook your own food and dont have extravagant tastes. If you only stay in hotels and eat out at restaurants most of the time then your money can disappear very very quickly.
Sell any unnecessary stuff littering your home, save and find a 2nd job. Russia needs your cash.
3. Pack wisely.
Bring your best clothes but don’t take too much. Most Russians will look smarter than you! Believe it or not, even the once unfashionable Russian guys are trying their best to look like biznizmen or oligarchs and are starting to use cosmetics, deodorant and tanning salons and being very particular about their grooming.
Mullets and very strange clothing from the caucusas still abound, such as open sandals in summer, pointy shoes and the ubiquitous Russian “manbag”! Expect many older people to still be wearing clothes with a certain 1980′s style.
The extreme weather will wear your clothes out much more quickly than at home, so bring new or nearly new things. Clothes are expensive in Russia so don’t assume that you will just buy stuff there, you probably won’t, apart from the obligatory furry hat.
I recommend good walking boots for most of the year, they will keep your feet better protected and reduce the risk of injury from the crazy uneven and broken sidewalks. Choose black walking boots and they will also be smart enough for trips out to bars, cafes and theatres as well.
Definitely bring your best camera and Ipad or notebook computer if you wish but leave most expensive things at home. What you don’t take can’t be stolen.
4 Get a Clue.
Try to learn as much Russian as possible before you go. OK, you won’t be challenging Pushkin with your knowledge of Russian grammar but any Russian is better than nothing. I recommend The New Penguin Russian Course as a great all in one introduction to Russian language. A small dictionary such as The Oxford Russian Mini Dictionary is also a very useful thing to take with you on your trip.
If you intend to live in Russia for anything longer than a short holiday then it is in your own interests to study the language. Whilst it is certainly possible to live in Russia without knowing any Russian, knowing the language makes everything much easier, safer and more convenient. If you have been in Russia for a year or so and you can only grunt an muffled spaceeba then feel ashamed of your laziness. Knowing a smattering of Russian could well save your life one day. This isn’t Holland or Switzerland where everybody knows English. I’m not fluent, but I can generally understand what’s going on and respond in some manner.
How are you going to call the police/fire/ambulance in an emergency if you dont speak a word ? They almost certainly won’t speak English.
If you need to find an English speaker in a hurry then you can of course, target the young, and especially young women, who are probably less likely to murder you than a man, and are more likely to know English.
However, if you live in Russia for any length of time and have to do this every time you need help then you may end up feeling like a sex stalker.
Above All – Remember the famous words of the Hitchhikers Guide – “Don’t Panic”!
To be continued………………………….. Part 2 coming soon.